The children of Israel have arrived at Kadesh and find themselves without water. They begin to complain to Moses and Aaron. As the two leaders turn to God, they are told to take the staff, speak to the rock and water will pour forth.
Then something unexpected happens. Moses takes his staff as Aaron gathers the people. Then Moses says: “Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Then “Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff” (Num. 20:10-11).
This action cost Moses and Aaron the privilege of leading the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. “Because you did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify me in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I have given them” (ibid., v. 12).
Commentators disagree as to why this single action earned Moses such a severe penalty. Was it his anger? Or his act of striking the rock instead of speaking to it? Was it the subtle implication that it was he and not God who brought water from the rock? Was it that he repeated what he had done almost forty years earlier showing that though he was the right leader for the ex-slaves, he was not the leader for the new generation?
Why did Moses fail this particular test? On two previous occasions he had faced the same challenge. Why this third time did he lose emotional control?
I suggest that the answer is explicitly in the text but in such an understated manner that perhaps we’ve missed it.
In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. (Num. 20:1)
Immediately after this statement we read the words: “Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron.” I believe there is a connection between the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron and the events that immediately followed, including Moses’ response to their complaints.
This was the first challenge Moses faced without his dearly beloved sister at his side. Remember who she was to Moses. She was his elder sister, his oldest sibling. She had watched over him as he floated down the Nile in a basket. She had the presence of mind, and the boldness, to speak to Pharaoh’s daughter and arrange for her baby brother to be nursed by his own mother. Without Miriam, Moses would have grown up ignorant of who he really was.
Miriam is a strong presence in his life though often in the background. She led the women in song at the Red Sea, exhibiting a leadership role. We get a glimpse of how much she meant to Moses when she and Aaron “began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite” (Num. 12:1). When Miriam is smitten with leprosy, Moses prays for her with simple eloquence in the shortest prayer on record – five Hebrew words – “Please, God, heal her now.” Moses cares deeply for her, despite her negative talk.
But I suggest that it is in this week’s reading that we begin to perceive the full impact of her influence. For the first time Moses faces a challenge without his sister at his side. And for the first time Moses loses emotional control in the presence of the all the people. This, my friends, is one of the effects of bereavement. Those who have experienced the loss of a sibling often say it is harder than the loss of a parent. The loss of a parent, difficult though it be, is part of the natural order of life. The loss of a brother or sister is far less expected and more profoundly disorienting. And Miriam was no ordinary sibling. Moses owed her his entire relationship with his natural family, as well as his identity as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Leadership is a lonely undertaking. But at the same time no leader can successfully survive on his or her own. Jethro warned Moses about this many years earlier. (Exod. 18:18) A leader needs three kinds of support: (1) allies who will fight alongside him/her, (2) a trustworthy team to whom he/she can delegate, and (3) a soul-mate or soul-mates to whom he/she can confide his/her doubts and fears, who will listen with no agenda but to serve as a supportive presence, and who will give him/her the courage, confidence and sheer resilience to carry on.
It is false to suppose that people in positions of leadership have thick skins. Most are intensely vulnerable. They can suffer deeply from doubt and uncertainty. Leader are often faced with decisions, not knowing what the end result may be. Leaders can be hurt by criticism and the betrayal of people they once considered friends. Because they are leaders, they rarely show their vulnerability in public. They often have to project a confidence they may not feel internally.
Leaders need confidants, people who will kindly tell them what they do not want to hear and cannot hear from anyone else; people in whom they can confide without fear that their transparency will be publicized. A trustworthy confidant cares about the leader more than about the issues. He or she up lifts the weary or discouraged leader, and gently brings them back to reality. I dare say there is no successful leader without a loyal, supportive confidant(s).
Maimonides calls it the “friendship of trust” and describes it as having someone in whom “you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded,” hiding neither the good news nor the bad, knowing that the other person will neither take advantage of the confidences shared, nor share them with others.”
Miriam was Moses’ “trusted friend,” his confidante, the source of his emotional stability. Grieving her death, he could no longer cope with crisis as he had done while she was alive.
Those who are a source of strength to others need their own source of strength. The Torah explicitly demonstrates that for Moses, God Himself was often that source of strength. But Moses was also a human being and even he needed a human friend, a human confidant. Miriam was that friend.
Even the greatest cannot lead alone.
In Tune with Torah this week = The Bible knows nothing of living as a spiritual and emotional hermit. Human beings have a God-given need for relationship – with God and with one another. Some say that if an individual has even two or three intimate friends in life, they are abundantly blessed. Friendships of this degree are precious gifts and are to be treasured and appreciated.